Out of Mind, Out of Sight
Editor's note: This is the third in a continuing series of stories examining the effects of a massive overhaul of Texas' juvenile justice system in the mid-'90s.
With a state-issued razor blade Becky scraped the skin off her knuckles, shaved strips of flesh from inside her arms and carved the names of girlfriends onto her thighs. She buried staples so deeply into her skin that they need to be surgically removed.
The 15-year-old with pale green eyes and sandy blond hair sits in the superintendent's office at the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center, 60 miles south of Dallas, where the state sends mentally ill juvenile offenders. Arms crossed over her chest, she talks about living in Dallas with her grandmother until she was 6. After her grandmother's stroke, her dad, a Houston mechanic, brought her to live in Bellaire where she failed first grade, started smoking cigarettes and was drinking, having sex and getting stoned by the time she was 11. She moved in with her mother and was soon expelled from school for carrying knives. She says she was molested by a friend of her father's, raped in her mother's trailer and sexually assaulted by numerous guys during the many times she ran away from home.
She tried to die six times: hanging herself twice and swallowing bottles of Tylenol, Excedrin and NyQuil. At 13, she was living on the streets of Dallas addicted to crack. Drunk on gin and juice, she stole a Mustang, crashed into a row of parked cars and was arrested when she stopped for gas. Sent to a court-mandated drug rehab center, she ran away two weeks later. She spent a month giving blow jobs to Corpus Christi gang members in exchange for drugs and shelter until she was turned in as a runaway. The judge was going to give Becky a second chance, but Becky's mother told the court Becky couldn't be trusted and that she didn't want her to come home. She wanted her daughter sent to the Texas Youth Commission.
There Becky cried constantly, couldn't sleep and tried to hang herself with her T-shirt. She was diagnosed with depression, uncontrollable anger and post-traumatic stress disorder from sexual abuse and was sent to one of the state's 52 beds for mentally ill female offenders. She takes three different types of medication to stabilize her mood, alleviate her depression and help her sleep. Like many kids in Texas, Becky got the treatment she needed only after she was incarcerated.
"In Texas the only way adolescents get mental health care is if they're arrested," says Mike Griffiths, executive director of the Dallas County Juvenile Probation Department. "Often a parent will be advised by a school counselor or police officer to file an offense report against them and they'll get taken care of. That's not the best way to get mental health care; unfortunately it's the most common way for children in this state."
Texas has always ranked in the bottom five in treating the mentally ill, says state Representative Sylvester Turner, a Houston Democrat. "They can't get the help because it's not there," he says. Turner recently pushed a $35 million plan through the Legislature to identify offenders with mental illness and continue treatment after they're released. "You don't just let them out the door and depend on them," Turner says. "You stay with them all the way through."
Right now, the Texas Youth Commission just lets them go. Almost half of approximately 5,000 adolescents at TYC have a diagnosed mental illness, according to Dr. Linda Reyes, TYC's assistant deputy executive director for rehabilitation. Last year the state spent $1.5 million on psychotropic drugs for 820 incarcerated teens. But the care didn't follow kids into the community. Of 705 juvenile offenders with severe mental illness paroled last year, only 92 received continued care.
In Harris and Dallas counties there are very few beds for indigent children. The University of Texas Harris County Psychiatric Center costs $642 a day, and the average stay is 10 days. Private psychiatric hospitals can run $1,000 a day. Kids like Becky, who lived in a trailer, can't afford $100-an-hour psychiatric visits. "These kids are ignored until they commit a crime," says Joanne Go, community education director for Houston-based Child Builders, a mental health advocacy group.
Teen crime skyrocketed in the 1990s. When George W. Bush became governor, millions were spent building bigger prisons in an effort to reduce crime rates. Judges handing down harsher punishments caused a dramatic drop in violent crime, says Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, chairman of the Harris County Juvenile Board.
But cracking down on crime uncovered a growing problem: With more kids locked up, more have been diagnosed with mental illness. Since 1995, the percentage of kids TYC has identified with major mental illnesses has nearly doubled, Reyes says. Because of the increasing number of mentally ill kids arrested, Dallas County created a psychiatric ward inside the detention center, and Harris County contracted a wing at Harris County Psychiatric Center. TYC sends kids it deems mentally ill to one of two facilities, the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center or the Crockett State School, a 90-minute drive north of Huntsville.
Still, not every emotionally disturbed offender is identified and sent to a treatment program. Differentiating between a kid with a diagnosable disorder and a normal rebellious teen takes more time than many police officers have. On the surface, the two may seem the same, but the difference lies in the intensity, degree and frequency of the bad behavior, says Dr. Mitch Young, a Houston-based specialist in child, adolescent and forensic psychiatry and president-elect of the Texas Society of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
"A teen-ager kicking up their heels a little bit is not the same thing as a persistent pattern of violating other people's rights or societal norms," Young says. "These are not typical teen-agers. Most teen-agers don't repeatedly try to kill themselves or steal cars. Teen-agers may get mouthy, they may get horsey, they may like to dress differently or dye their hair or like music that parents don't like, but that doesn't violate the basic rights of others."
Nationally, horror stories have emerged about incarcerated emotionally disturbed kids being shackled to toilets, involuntarily injected with psychotropic drugs and overmedicated to sedate, not treat. Kids have been punished for manifestations of their mental illness because guards aren't trained to identify symptoms and deal with them properly. "Our criminal justice system is just not situated to be a psychiatric hospital," Representative Turner says.
For years Harris County's standard treatment for a mentally ill juvenile offender has been to slap a football helmet on his head and handcuff him to the bed. "That obviously was, is and will always be inhumane," says Elmer Bailey Jr., executive director of the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department. "Justice is not supposed to be so finite that no matter what you do, that if you get sick, you have to stay sick or be treated unfairly." But since the department's contracted hospital beds are always full, handcuffs and helmets are still used as temporary treatment to keep kids from slashing their wrists or splitting their skulls. "We've gotta do something until we can get them in that bed," Bailey says. "It should never come to the point where there's not an alternative for a mentally ill child that doesn't involve being strapped to a bed."
Lois Moore, Harris County Psychiatric Center's chief administrator, was horrified when she toured the Juvenile Probation Department and saw how mentally ill kids were treated. "It was not a therapeutic environment," she says. Thanks to her efforts, a 16-bed wing for juvenile offenders opened this year at the center. In addition, a handful of prevention programs have been formed by the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, Children's Protective Services and the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County. This year Dallas County began contracting with Intercept, an early-intervention program, and continues to do wraparound services for juvenile offenders. The goal is to catch children with mental illness early, get them into counseling and prevent them from committing bigger crimes.
"If you get rid of the mental illness, you might get rid of the behavior problems," Bailey says.
Dr. Steven Schnee, executive director of the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority, says Harris County needs more early-intervention programs. But two months ago, as part of statewide legislative health-care cutbacks, the budget for child and adolescent services was slashed by more than $300,000. These cutbacks mean the authority will treat at least 1,000 fewer kids each month, forcing therapists to work with the sickest children instead of treating illness before it worsens. "We scrubbed down our programs," Schnee says.
During the last 10 months in Corsicana's stabilization unit, "Malcolm" tried to hang himself eight times. The 19-year-old banged his head on the walls, fought with other boys and slashed his wrists; instead of swallowing his medicine, he sniffed it to get high.
Malcolm was diagnosed with depression and chronic suicidality. "I feel that I don't need to be in this world," says the teen from a small Central Texas town. "There ain't nothing here for me." Growing up he tried to kill himself five or six times. In May 1998 he was arrested for selling marijuana and was sent to TYC's Gainesville State School, where he earned parole. After a dirty urine analysis, fighting in school, stealing khaki pants from Wal-Mart and not identifying himself to a police officer, he was placed in a Dallas residential treatment center. Back home, he broke into a house, stole a bicycle and returned to TYC.
He wants to be a truck driver so he can go places.
Twenty years ago there was a movement to move people from institutions and send them home. But when patients left the hospitals, treatment programs weren't available in the community, TYC's Reyes says, which led to mentally ill parents having mentally ill children they didn't know how to deal with. "It is transgenerational, and it grows exponentially," Reyes says.
The more services a city has, the fewer sick people are in jail, says Dr. Bill Schnapp, chair of the Mental Health Needs Council of Houston. "What you've got is a cascading problem and failure of social policy where you've got kids inappropriately or inadequately served. Society is going to pay for these people one way or another," Schnapp says.
The Coalition for Juvenile Justice estimates that 50 to 75 percent of incarcerated kids have a diagnosable mental disorder. Harris County has 4,300 teens on probation but only 16 beds at the psychiatric hospital and about 50 offenders placed in contract services. Dallas County has about 1,900 offenders on probation, but its detention center has only eight psychiatric beds. Two-thirds of the teens arrested committed nonviolent crimes, Reyes says, so theoretically, had these kids received counseling and mental health care, many might not have entered the system.
On February 28, the House Appropriations Committee adopted the $35 million pilot program Turner authored geared toward improving mental health care for offenders. The plan is to identify kids with mental illness while they're incarcerated and continue care after they leave.
The project is a joint effort of TYC, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission and local mental health authorities coordinated and funded by the Texas Council on Offenders with Mental Impairments. "The intent is to keep them from progressing in the system," says Dee Kifowit, director of the council. "To keep them from going to prison."
Harris County is getting the lion's share of the funding, receiving $2.5 million. One million is for juvenile programs; the other $1.5 million is for adults. The state's seven largest counties received funding to hire therapists and train four juvenile probation officers to work with 60 mentally ill kids to make sure they see their counselors and take their medication. "There are many that quite honestly deserve the services that we won't ever get to," Bailey says. "But the thought's there." Harris County already has trained two probation officers, but they can't start working because the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority hasn't hired the 13 counselors for which it got grant funding. The jobs were posted weeks ago, Schnee says, and the money is in the bank, but qualified candidates haven't surfaced.
Dallas County Metro Care hired therapists before completing its proposal and contracts with the coalition. Dallas' first juvenile probation officer trained to work with "special needs" kids began in mid-October, and a second followed two weeks later. "We've started officially without any money," director Griffiths says. "We understand the legislative intent, and we are moving forward."
Three years ago the Dallas County Juvenile Probation Center created an eight-bed in-house psychiatric unit with seven Ph.D.'s and six master's-level clinicians doing assessments and outpatient counseling. The department spends about 15 percent of its budget on children with mental illness, Griffiths says. It has contracts with 26 residential treatment centers throughout the state and around the country and 30 contracts with nonresidential treatment programs. Severely psychotic children who are deemed "unmanageable" are sent to the Terrell State Hospital 30 miles east of Dallas, Griffiths says. "Regardless of the charges, if the child needs care, then [the juvenile judges are] going to order them into that facility and hold them in contempt of court if they refuse to admit them," Griffiths says.
It's rare that a Harris County juvenile judge orders an offender into Harris County Psychiatric Center's acute care unit, Bailey says. A kid who commits a violent crime can't be admitted to the 16-bed subacute psychiatric unit. "If he tricked us or if he got well over there and he wanted to leave, he possibly could because it's not a secure environment," Bailey says. "If they escaped, nobody could feel safe. They stay in detention, they get medicine, they get helmeted, they get constantly watched. We put a big guy in the doorway. They just don't get to have the opportunity to abscond." Two kids escaped from the subacute unit this year. They boosted each other over the wall and went home. They didn't commit any crimes; probation officers found them and took them back to the hospital.
Security measures make it so people who need the most help can't easily get it. A 15-year-old African-American boy was arrested in September. A week later, he sits slumped in a white plastic chair on the fifth floor of the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center, heavily drugged, his empty eyes staring at the white wall. He's schizophrenic, and staffers say he needs more care than he's getting, but because he's charged with murdering his brother, he's deemed too dangerous for the 16-bed unit.
"How are you doing, sir?" asks Diana Quintana, a licensed psychologist who is the department's administrator of mental health services. He looks at her blankly, his eyes half closed. She tells him it's really important to let the doctors know how he's doing on his medication. He doesn't answer.
Three weeks later he stops eating and refuses to take his medicine, and the psychiatric staff say he's steadily deteriorating; a judge orders him into the acute unit at the Harris County Psychiatric Center. "He couldn't stay in detention any longer," Bailey says.
The detention center is a depressing place; locked doors lead to metal detectors surrounded by security cameras. The mostly bare walls are covered in scratches and patches (staff members say they haven't decorated because they're moving to a new building in a few years). In the stairwell, a trash can catches yellow water that drips through the soggy ceiling.
In a dimly lit, noisy area, boys' shouts echo off the empty walls. Here, offenders are given the Massachusetts Youth Screening Instrument, a 52-question true-or-false test that helps identify teens who might have mental or behavioral problems. "It tells us whether we need to ask more, harder questions," Bailey says. "We can decide between those who just want to create victims and those who need help in order to change."
Court-ordered psychological and sanity screenings are mostly performed by the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority's Child and Adolescent Services Forensic Unit (staffed by a licensed psychologist, a psychiatrist and two master's-level clinicians). Formerly the clinical supervisor for the forensic unit, Quintana is the only licensed psychologist the detention center employs, and she does more administrative work than therapy. The probation department's psychiatric staff is composed of a nonlicensed psychologist, three master's-level therapists and two social workers with master's degrees. The mental health authority employs a psychiatrist who prescribes and monitors psychotropic medication twice a week.
"For good or bad, for right or wrong, we are feeling overwhelmed by the needs of mentally ill children," Bailey says.
Two Hispanic boys with crew cuts sit on their knees smiling and waving in the window of an observation room at the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center.
"I'm on vacation," says one 15-year-old sitting on a ripped blue cot-length pillow. "I've gotta get away from home a little bit."
He was arrested for stealing a car and violated his probation by missing curfew. Avoiding his probation officer, he ran away from home and would crash with friends or stay awake walking the streets. Facing a murder charge, he's hoping to be deported back to El Salvador.
This morning he broke a toothbrush in half and used it to scratch a dozen shallow cuts onto his left wrist. "The devil did it to me," he says. "'Cause he's mean."
He points to a third boy sitting quietly in the corner clutching his pastor's business card. "He showed me how to do it," he says.
"No, I didn't," the boy says. "Don't lie."
The quiet boy's arms are covered in serious carvings--his street name, "Little Chaos," is scraped in gothic script. He says he ran away from home because his aunt beat him.
The second smiling, waving boy from the window says he misses his mother; he tried to kill himself by stabbing his shin so he could go to heaven and watch over her.
He starts banging his head against the wall. The first boy with the scratched wrist begins banging his head, too. Soon they're in rhythm, smiling and slamming their skulls.
This is a typical tour of the detention center. "I've been over there twice; I don't want to go back," says Harris County Psychiatric Center's Moore. "I couldn't hardly take it. It's dark and dingy-looking. It's blue; it's depressing even if you don't have a problem."
Seeing kids her grandchildren's age sitting in dark rooms staring at walls moved her to do more than just listen to Bailey's plea to get these kids better care than he can give. "It concerned me that there was no visible therapeutic care," Moore says. "When the kids get out, they have nothing to look forward to--except coming back."
Bailey says he's given the same pitch hundreds of times, but Moore is the first person to take action. She found an empty wing in the 250-bed psychiatric hospital, and within two years of her first tour Commissioners Court approved a $1.9 million contract with the psychiatric center. Since May, the juvenile offenders' wing has been full; 75 teens have received services. The average stay is 28 days, and the goal is to send kids straight home (if the court allows).
According to the National Mental Health Association, treatment programs reduce recidivism by 75 percent. Harris County Psychiatric Center plans to track teens for five years, hoping to see similar success rates. "If you believe that adolescents and teen-agers are still developing and not at a fixed point, then in theory this is the prime time to intervene," says Dr. Andrew Harper, director of child and adolescent services.
Along with music and recreation therapy, kids learn coping skills and anger management. Therapists try to teach offenders not to blame their actions entirely on their illnesses and to learn to make better choices.
"We try to expand the kids' ability to solve problems," Harper says. "No psychiatrist, no medicine is going to make you make the right decisions. We don't have the magic pill."
The ward is painted in bright blues and greens; inspirational, never-give-up quotations paper alternate walls. Kids wear their own clothes to maintain a sense of individuality and identity, says Linda Green, the nurse manager over child and adolescent services, and they can bring their own bed linen. Sleek, sculpted chairs and IKEA-type tables sit in the front room next to long black couches and a big-screen TV. The gold-colored game room has nonviolent video games, foosball, pingpong and an air hockey table.
"We didn't want to be the juvenile detention center south," Harper says.
"Derrick's" mother was addicted to crack before he was born. His father was in prison, and his mother was in and out of jail for possession, so Derrick spent his childhood being bounced around San Antonio projects. The 18-year-old says he has been arrested seven or eight times, started drinking when he was 6 and soon moved on to smoking weed dipped in embalming fluid and recreationally using Xanax and codeine.
"My aunt's boyfriend used to chill in the block and sling dope, and I used to chill with them," he says. He was 14 when he asked his "uncle" to teach him the business. "I seen all the jewelry and the cars," he says. "They had big pieces of chain and Rolexes--I wanted all that." His mother had her friends buy from him in exchange for free drugs for herself.
He was a member of 74 Hoover, a branch of the Crips gang, drove a blue 1981 Cutlass and wore three 1-carat diamond studs in each ear. He dropped out of school before he was 16. "I was too busy in the streets," Derrick says.
The first time he was arrested for possession he was sent home two hours later. A week after that he was arrested and again immediately released. The third time, he ran from the police, throwing 2.5 ounces of cocaine into the bushes so he was charged only with evading arrest.
Seeing a psychologist was a condition of his probation, but he never went. "I would just disappear," Derrick says.
After a dirty urine test, he was sent to Crockett and was diagnosed with conduct, mood and polysubstance disorders, depression, physical abuse as a child and bereavement for his recently murdered uncle. Now he's reading the second Harry Potter book, studying for his GED and on phase 3.9 of a four-level resocialization scale. He's thinking about becoming an auto mechanic so he can support his two infant sons.
An hour south of Dallas, Corsicana looks like a rundown outlet mall; nearly every store boasts factory warehouse prices. On the edge of town, across from the mall--Wal-Mart, JCPenney and a corn dog store--is the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center. Surrounded by a 15-foot candy cane fence, this is where TYC sends the state's sickest kids.
In 1887 locals donated 200 acres to create an orphanage. TYC bought the home in 1957, sent the orphans to public schools and started bringing in mentally ill offenders.
Corsicana is supposed to house 109 juvenile delinquents. On an early-October afternoon it has 121: 66 males and 55 females. And, like always, a waiting list. Bulldozers are ripping up the roads, and the air is filled with dust. TYC is renovating the cottages, tearing up worn carpet and laying fresh tile. Construction workers are building a new school and converting two buildings into dormitories to house 48 more students by next fall.
There are seven staff psychologists and three part-time psychiatrists who rotate being on campus every day but Sunday. They need more staff members, says the superintendent, Dr. Don Brantley. Intensive treatment here costs $194.51 a day for severely emotionally disturbed kids and $280.02 a day for kids in the 41-bed stabilization unit--compared with the average $102.19 a day for general offenders at other TYC institutions.
Brantley has a doctorate in psychology and talks about being more flexible when dealing with kids classified as "emotionally disturbed." Most incarcerated adolescents are given a set structure and clearly defined, heavily enforced rules, but he says that doesn't work with mentally ill kids. "We need to give them a little leeway," he says. These children, he says, need to be protected. "It can be very difficult for them if we don't recognize that this is a kid that can't compete."
On the other hand, he talks about kids who think they will be coddled at Corsicana so they lie to psychiatrists about voices they don't hear. "There's payoffs for earning a mental health diagnosis," Brantley says. "Some kids outright fake it."
He cites teens who halfheartedly hang themselves when a guard is coming, or tie a noose around their neck, then rap on the door to make sure they don't die. "They don't have the wherewithal or the courage," Brantley says. "Over time, you can see how gamy it is."
A girl on Corsicana's main campus set a record for trying to kill herself this year by tying 100 things around her neck. Brantley didn't move her to the stabilization unit because, he says, her behavior was clearly manipulative. "She's choosing to do this; it's her way of having power or control," he says. "She'd find this so comfortable we wouldn't be able to get her back out."
Inside the stabilization unit girls wearing orange jumpsuits, white socks and flip-flops sit at desks and glare at one another. "These kids would be in a state hospital if they weren't in TYC," Brantley says. Mattresses and blankets are removed from the cells each morning, leaving solid blue blocks bolted to the floor. The window on the bathroom door has been covered, but a peephole was drilled because girls have a tendency to tie bras and panties around their necks, Brantley says.
"They can be really resourceful," adds the assistant superintendent, Lynda Smith.
Down the dusty road is the security unit where youths with severe behavior problems, versus emotional issues, come to "cool off" anywhere from 24 hours to 90 days. "Some kids, you need to separate them out," Brantley says. "They just can't function."
The security unit is usually filled with mostly girls. "They tend to be more emotional and take a little longer to calm down," Brantley says. The observation rooms have larger windows than standard cells so guards can make sure kids don't try to drown themselves in the toilet or stuff clothes down the commode to flood the room.
Outside the administrative building, girls in blue shorts play softball, boys shoot hoops, and a gentle breeze blows through the gazebo.
"Frankly," Brantley says, "a lot of kids don't want to leave. They deliberately won't get better because they don't want to leave. They sabotage their chance for release."
"Jamal," a lanky boy from southeast Houston, has been at Crockett for 28 months. He lived with his grandmother, a retired nurse, his mother, an elementary school cafeteria cook, and his uncles, both police officers. "They were at work most of the time," he says.
When he was 12, Jamal started hanging out with the boys in the neighborhood playing football, basketball and smoking dope. Soon he was selling marijuana and crack.
He was first arrested for "testing" his .25-caliber gun by firing it out the window of a moving car. Buying another gun, he violated his probation and was sent to boot camp; he was rearrested for both dealing and making crack.
Jamal insists that he's not certified as emotionally disturbed. "I'm stable," he says. "I'm just waiting to go home." He says it's "nerve-racking" to live in a dorm filled with crazy kids, and he tries not to have "problem people" in his room. He talks about how he wants to go to Texas Southern University and someday own a McDonald's franchise.
The staff psychologist insists that Jamal is clinically depressed and has been for a long time. He's better than he used to be--he doesn't need medication anymore--but the therapist says Jamal is still classified as disturbed because he continues to make "thinking errors" and has difficulty with reality.
Past the Trinity River, Rattlesnake Ranch and acres of cows, corn and cotton sits the Crockett State School. Across the street is Crockett High School; the only obvious difference between the brick buildings is that the TYC institution is surrounded by a 12-foot chain-link fence.
The green-roofed buildings sit on a gentle hill covered in pine and pear trees; over-ripe fruit litters the dry grass. Dorms are named "New Hope," "Courage," "Challenge," "Success," "Opportunity," "Discovery" and "Freedom." Coils of barbed wire top the schoolhouse, so boys won't have to be chased off the roof like Wiffle balls.
In the 1950s the school was an orphanage for unwanted African-American girls. "People could drop their kids off," says the chaplain, Bill Phillips. "Like abandoning a puppy." TYC started sending mentally ill kids here about five years ago because Corsicana was overflowing, says Brantley, who was then the director of clinical services at Crockett. Brantley says Crockett's single-bedroom dormitories with added privacy are conducive to treatment. "To function well in a setting like that, you have to have a certain amount of psychological stamina because you can't get away from people," Brantley says. "You have to have really good boundaries. Sometimes just walls and doors help."
Crockett houses 264 male juvenile delinquents, and more than half are from Houston. About 145 beds are reserved for kids classified as emotionally disturbed; each costs about $157 per day. "We run over always," says Blu Nicholson, the assistant superintendent and the former program administrator at Corsicana. There are also 24 beds for offenders with chemical dependencies, and the remaining 96 spots are reserved for the "general offender" population.
The emotionally disturbed kids and the general offenders are treated much the same, with 16-hour structured schedules filled with counseling and resocialization skills. Boys sleep in the same red metal bunks bolted to the floor and are put in the same sterile solitary cells if they misbehave. The main differences are that disturbed teens often have their own rooms, carpeted floors instead of tile, and they can't be pepper-sprayed. Caseworkers have half the workload with the mentally ill offenders, and instead of being immediately punished for acting out, kids are talked to and disciplined according to their individual diagnosis. "If it's part of their disorder that they're highly aggressive, then the kid can't be reprimanded for being highly aggressive," says the superintendent, Don Freeman. "It's a lot of paperwork. These kids require so much; they're so needy."
Outside, a boy in an orange jumpsuit is screaming, "Fuck you! Get your fucking handcuffs off me!" A guard grabs the boy's shoulders and slams him hard against the white transport van. As the boy screams, the guide gently steers the tour in the opposite direction, talks about how the spacious lawn is often filled with boys tossing footballs and points out the unfinished agility course--tires, pull-up bars and poles. The fire marshal condemned the indoor swimming pool five years ago, the library shelves are only half full with mostly outdated books, and the scoreboard in the gym is broken. At the basketball tournament last week, the chaplain kept score on butcher paper. "I was just glad the fountain worked," he says.
When she stole the Mustang, Becky says, she was planning to get locked up. She didn't like living with an overbearing alcoholic mother who was rarely home and wouldn't let her have friends over, so Becky ran away. Life on the streets was worse. She heard that kids who were arrested were treated the way she thought teens were supposed to be treated--they were given food and clothes and attention.
"I was living through misery," Becky says. "I didn't have what I needed. I didn't have people there every day. I was getting nowhere."
With nowhere to go, many mentally ill kids do what Becky did, committing progressively worse crimes, getting angrier and sicker until someone notices and helps them.
"They go from bad to worse," says Schnapp, chairman of the Mental Health Needs Council of Houston. "The end result of not serving these kids is literally destroyed lives and oftentimes expensive, unproductive prison sentences. We can trace that back to the fact that we neglected them--we neglected them when they really needed help when they were juveniles and when they were younger."
Becky is a shy, quiet girl with freckles and jumbled teeth. She says she's out of the "suicide mode," but she still craves cocaine. Her mouth dry, her stomach knotted, she stares at the floor, picking up anything white.
She gets angry when she sees other Corsicana girls carving railroad tracks into their arms. She wants to get some cocoa butter to heal her scarred skin. Someday, she says, she wants to be a massage therapist.
Halfway through her resocialization plan, Becky has a couple of years left in TYC. When she gets out, as when she came in, there will be nowhere for her to get treatment--unless she gets into trouble again.
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